Author H.P. Waitt Destigmatizes Mental Health With A New YA Fantasy Series
One of the biggest advantages to the green boom and CBD becoming mainstream is the effect it’s had on bringing the mental health conversation to the forefront.
While hemp and cannabis medicine become less and less taboo, so do mental health topics. Using CBD for anxiety and depression — and then talking about it — allows all of us to more openly talk about anxiety and depression, in turn facilitating more cultural conversation and normalizing these conditions.
Philanthropist and author Hailey Waitt — a local San Diego gal — wants to help destigmatize mental health as well, and is introducing it to young readers with her latest YA fantasy novel, Band of Shadows. Her novel dives into the concept of not seeing your mental diagnosis as a crutch, but rather a “superpower” — part of what makes you you.
When Waitt was in her late teens, she had a hard time coming to grips with her own emotional and mental state and didn’t understand why she felt off. “My first foray into the world of mental health is a bit of a blur, mostly because I was so unaware of what was happening,” she told SVN. “I didn’t understand why I felt the way I did, how it was affecting others, or what I could do to change it … I wasn’t even really aware that it was something I needed to change.”
Dealing with general anxiety her whole life (but chalking it up to nerves and stress), things came to a head when she experienced a tragedy her sophomore year of college. “One of my best friends had passed away in a hit and run accident a few months prior, and I had spent most of the summer hiding from the pain of it all,” she explained. “When the school year started up again, I felt empty. This is one of the things I have found hardest to describe to people — how my depression manifests into a feeling of emptiness, of nothing. I don’t feel sad. I don’t feel happy. I don’t feel excitement. I don’t feel anything.”
Struggling to find words that described what she felt, Waitt hopes to give a voice — and context — to young people struggling through the same issues. Enter: Band of Shadows.
Using YA fantasy (one of the most popular genres of literature for young readers) as a Trojan horse of sorts for her message, she seamlessly weaves a complex and nuanced topic into an adventure-fueled plot packed with magical realism. (Think: Harry Potter meets X-Men in Narnia, with a female protagonist. Yes, seriously).
Between descriptions of an enchanted forest full of trees that move and waterfalls that flow upward, the narrative of Band of Shadows flips the idea of “mental illness as a weakness” on its head, turning it into the protagonist’s greatest strength (in fact, it is her superpower).
“When I finally got help [for my mental health] I had names for everything I was dealing with — anxiety and depression. My depression and anxiety are biological, deeply ingrained in my DNA,” said Waitt. “The knowledge stung a bit, hearing that I was facing a lifetime of this diagnosis. But it also sprung me into action. I wasn’t going to let it take over my entire life. I wasn’t going to let depression keep me stuck in my house or allow panic attacks to keep me from living my life.”
It was that action and sense of agency that led Waitt to discover that these diagnoses didn’t have to be a hindrance. “I think in the very beginning I saw my depression and anxiety as a weakness; there were (and still are) days where getting out of bed or leaving the house is nearly impossible, and that certainly made getting to class on time a big issue for younger me,” she said. “But I think I discovered very early on how my mental health could be a strength.”
She broke it down for herself, point by point. Some examples of how her anxiety impacts her life: “I am constantly in my head, I overanalyze everything, I have trouble sleeping, and I prefer being home 90 percent of the time,” she explained. “But while these may sound like negatives (and, yes, sometimes they feel like negatives), they are hugely beneficial to my life. I am constantly in my head — GREAT! I’m a writer, I regularly have five or six crazy story lines running through my head at any given time. I carry a notebook with me at all times for this exact reason.”
And when it comes to overanalyzing — something many of us with anxiety can relate to — Waitt says her tendency to “pick apart every little detail about why a person behaved a certain way or why an event unfolded the way it did,” is actually to her benefit. “This is a fantastic skill for a storyteller. It’s made me understand human nature, it’s given me insight into how a crazy sequence of events can take place, and it gives me ideas for a character trait, or a storyline.”
And as for the insomnia? It definitely has its negative implications, but the genesis of the book Band of Shadows came to her “while in the throes of insomnia one night.” As an author, she’s taken the lemons of a lifetime of sleep struggles and made literary lemonade. “Some of my favorite book ideas have come to me while I couldn’t sleep!”
The anxiety-and-depression-induced area that she used to struggle with the most was the struggle to leave her house. “Even simple tasks like grocery shopping used to leave me panic stricken,” said Waitt. “Not only have I’ve learned tricks to alleviate those feelings, but I have also embraced my homebody tendencies.” This starts with bringing work to her. “I work from home, so my chosen career path certainly worked out well,” she said. “When you’re a writer who loves being home, you get so much more done. I write at odd hours of the day, and I find myself being insanely productive because whenever the creativity strikes, I’m essentially in my office. There are so many ways to make your supposed ‘weaknesses’ into strengths, you just have to find what works for you!”
This message is driven home further within her novel. “In Band of Shadows, our protagonist, Scarlet, finds a door that she’s been dreaming about for months. When she finally dares to open it, she enters the world of Avalon, where she discovers she is actually a Faye gifted with three otherworldly powers. It suddenly clicks for Scarlet; she realizes the traits she thought were holding her back are actually the things that set her apart from the rest, and readers follow her journey in discovering how these powers allow her to turn her biggest weaknesses into her greatest strengths.”
“I wanted to flip the script of Scarlet’s diagnosis of depression and anxiety, as these illnesses quickly become a part of her greatest power, and I hope it is something that readers can identify with,” said Waitt. “We see Scarlet struggling with her emotions, we see her struggle in therapy (with a fairly incompetent therapist I might add), and then we see her fighting to save an entire world from collapse, all because her emotional response to the world is something no one else has, something society told her was a weakness. I want young people to realize that their diagnosis does not define them or hold them back in any way. It is not a weakness, and it doesn’t need to be treated as such.”
Waitt’s effort to destigmatize mental illness is making a profound cultural impact. We see the destigmatization of mental illness as a direct parallel to the destigmatization of cannabis medicine; the two truly go hand in hand. The more we can do to break down the barriers of these topics, the more we can create a healthier, happier, better world.